A new challenge awaits USF

USF coach Stan Heath knows there are no breaks when it comes to playing in the Big East.

The Bulls, coming off a 65-62 loss at Notre Dame on Sunday, face a crucial matchup at Marquette on Saturday at 8:30 p.m against a team jockeying for position in the cluttered Big East and NCAA Tournament races.

“Every game is a new challenge,” Heath said. “Every game has different players we have to match up against, different venues we have to play in and different time and work schedules we have to work with, so it is just important that we stay grounded and look at each team.”

Marquette (15-8, 6-5), which is riding a four-game win streak, is a game ahead of USF (15-8, 5-6) in the conference standings. With a win Saturday, USF would jump the Golden Eagles before it hosts Cincinnati, which is tied with the Bulls.

“We still have to be the hunting team and not the team that is sitting back and being lazy,” he said. “I do believe our guys have the right mindset, and they’re excited about what has happened, but we have to make sure we remember that three weeks ago we were 0-4 and things can change in a hurry if we don’t continue to make progress and get better.”

USF may improve Saturday with the return of sophomore forward Gus Gilchrist, who hasn’t played since Dec. 2 against Hampton, when he sprained his ankle.

“That is going to fall on me and (junior Dominique Jones) to make sure that we fit him in,” said senior guard Chris Howard, who had a career-high 23 points Sunday. “Me being a point guard, (I have to) make sure he gets touches and gets comfortable back into the system.”

Gilchrist would join a lineup with four players averaging double figures, with Jones leading the team at 21.9 points per game. Before his injury, Gilchrist was the Bulls’ leading scorer, helping the team to a 10-2 start in non-conference play.

Notre Dame broke USF’s four-game win streak, but the Bulls are looking to start a new streak that could help them move from the NCAA Tournament bubble. According to ESPN.com’s “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi, the Bulls are one of the “first four out” right now.

“We have to take it one game at a time,” Heath said. “We always say that, but it is so true in this league. Everybody is beating up on each other, and the close games are the ones we have to find a way to make our free throws, make our stops and get our rebounds to close and finish.”